Business

Retailers are turning to in-store customer tracking to combat Amazon — and that’s a big mistake

Image Credit: Flickr/drnewton

To battle Amazon, brick-and-mortar retailers are leveraging the power of data.

Big retailers as old as Nordstrom and as young as Warby Parker have turned to in-store tracking to figure out just about everything about their customers — including their sex, age, and where they spend the most time while visiting.

For retailers, the idea is that, by acquiring as much data as possible on customers, they can develop stronger profiles on customers and, in turn, more effectively sell them the kinds of things they would be interested in. Just as online retailers rely on tracking cookies and recommendation systems, retailers are turning to the comforts of data to go after visitors.

For customers, the methods could in theory lead to things like in-store recommendations, coupons, and stores more optimized to sell them as many products as possible.

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Above: This is what your in-store experience looks like to RetailNext’s tracking system.

The problem? In-store customer tracking tickles the same part of the brain that online user tracking does. That should bother retailers, which are defending their practices with a justification no more nuanced than, “Well, Amazon does it, too.”

This, I’d argue, is the core problem with in-store customer tracking: By relying so much on data and analytics, retailers are ignoring their more significant and fundamental problem: The in-store experience is typically really, really awful.

Tracking customers’ in-store activity is only helpful if customers are actually visiting stores in the first place. If the pull of Amazon is so strong that people just skip the trip to the local Best Buy entirely, how helpful, really, is knowing how long someone stared at a row of smartphone cases? Worse, what if this sort of customer tracking actually pushes people away? In terms of the customer experience, data may give you part of the picture, but it hardly gives you the full one.

For retailers, the goal shouldn’t be to emulate Amazon and envy its data and price-driven hegemony — it should be offer a very different experience from Amazon: More human, more comfortable, and less about viewing customers as sacks of data and more as, well, people.


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